The conservative case for Brexit is unimpeachable, but has the Covid-19 crisis shown that the UK public has lost the ability to make it work? Let us take those in turn.
When, in June 2016, the country voted to leave the European Union, the irreconcilable Dominic Grieve types quickly regrouped. Their strategy was clever, but transparent: to keep the discussion alive at all costs, and to shift it in the direction of maximum ambiguity (mainly the economy). What were people really voting for? Did they really vote to be poorer? I am sure you remember the Remainer noise.
This was an effective, but intellectually dishonest, strategy of distraction. Once the result of the referendum became clear, the only question should have been this: what does it mean, in practical terms, to “leave” the EU?
And what it means to leave an organisation is determined primarily by the composition of that organisation.
The EU is a set of institutions with a collective teleology: “ever closer union” (otherwise known as the incremental dissolution of the nation state). Those defining institutions wear the cloak of economics but are in fact thoroughly political and wholly in service of the stated aims of the European Project. Further, its direction of travel is overseen by a court, the ECJ, which implements a Napoleonic concept of jurisprudence, one which is simply incommensurable with our own historical experience of “common law”.
You cannot “leave” an organisation like that while remaining in any of its defining institutions. Any more than you can leave a dinner party by going to sit in the garden. To remain anywhere in the orbit of the EU is, in effect, to remain in the EU. It is to be like a lump of rock that has found itself in inconvenient proximity to a black hole.
For conservatives all of this should be straightforward. We should recognise that the nation state is the natural object of political allegiance, and that the EU’s attempt to dissolve it is an attack on our quite justifiable habits of affection.
Conservatism is about looking for things to cherish, whether they be institutional, historical or cultural. The EU nomenklatura is indifferent to all that, as its appropriation of Beethoven’s 9th as an “anthem” confirms.
This is why Project Fear was so misconceived. The real case for Brexit is not economic; it involves the assertion that national sovereignty is a genuinely moral idea. It affirms that history exists and that our history matters to us.
And yet, and yet.
Sovereignty is, in the end, about people. Our post-EU future, to be successful, assumes that the creative and contrarian characteristics of the average Brit have survived our subjugation at the hands of the managers who have inserted themselves into our lives over the last 40 years. The current crisis has left me less than optimistic. It looks as if the national character has been flattened out by those managerial intrusions. We seem to have lost our vim.
I do not know who to blame more for this lockdown catastrophe: the government which imposed it, or those of us who colluded in it. The blanket restrictions that were imposed (extra-constitutionally) in March were based on imperfect scientific models which treat human persons as mere data points. It was right to comply with the rules; but it was wrong that so many people went beyond that and embraced them. Where were the subtle subversions that would have said to the government: yes, we will go along with this for now, but make no mistake we think that it is absurd? Where are the Matt Hancock face masks?
Why are some of us still cowering in our homes in fear of the “R” number, the epidemiological Spring Heel jack: completely fictitious but useful for scaring the children?
The conservative mind is a sceptical one, but we have acquiesced as the government has hyper-managed our lives on the basis of eminently disputable science. The conservative sensibility should be a religious one, and yet we are carrying on, absurdly, as if death is the worst thing that can happen to someone.
There is a robust conservative argument in favour of the sort of Brexit which divorces us completely from the tyranny of the European project. But conservatism, to the degree that it is theoretical at all, is predicated on a theory of human nature. If we are wrong about that, and if the national character is not what we take it to be, then maybe the case for Brexit is not as strong as we would like.
Sir David Frost is in Brussels attempting to defuse the Remainer mine traps which are hidden in the Johnson-May-EU Withdrawal Treaty and in the equally pernicious “Political Declaration”. I hope that he is successful. And I hope that we are deserving of that success.